Cory Doctorow is literally the first author I met after I became a science fiction author — our mutual editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden paired us up at the 2003 World Science Fiction Convention, which took place in Cory’s then-hometown of Toronto. Cory was a very fine tour guide of this new world I’d become a part of.
Even then, Cory was combining the speculation of science fiction with current-era social and technological concerns; in between real-world gigs as the European affairs coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and teaching at USC, Cory was writing novels like 2008’s Hugo-nominated “Little Brother,” which chronicled a teenage-led tech rebellion in a post-terrorist-attack San Francisco, and 2017’s “Walkaway,” which posits what could be called a proletariat uprising, if the uprising were defined as the proletariat abandoning the elites entirely.
This year, Cory released “Radicalized,” a collection of four novellas that take on political and social themes relevant today — medical care, immigration, white male rage and technological monopolies, among others — and wraps them in a layer of fiction, thin enough that most of these stories could be happening, if not today then tomorrow at the latest (except for the one involving a familiar flying superhero — hey, this is still speculative fiction).
I caught up with Cory, who now calls the Los Angeles area his home, via email as he was on tour for “Radicalized.” Cory and I will be sitting down again at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books to talk more about his book and other topics. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The back cover text of “Radicalized” says, “Dystopia is now.” Is it?
I think that we've definitely done a lot of dystopian set-dressing. Whether we’ve arrived at dystopia itself is something we can only identify in hindsight. For me, "dystopia" isn't a system that is breaking down — it's a system that, when it breaks down, spirals out of control, rather than being put to rights by people of goodwill and good faith.
There are definite signs of a radical shift in our perspective on what's politically possible — mass support for everything from the Green New Deal to Medicare for All to net neutrality — despite an anti-democratic, anti-majoritarian tyranny of the minority imposed by the Washington consensus that says all these things are impossible.
You’ve lived in Toronto, London, San Francisco and now the Los Angeles area. How does being a cosmopolitan traveler influence what you write and care about?
I think that it does create some insights into national blind spots, which work well as fodder for fiction — for example, Canadians are unjustifiably and extraordinarily smug about their "progressive" politics.
The U.K. taught me that the opposite of "British" is "plumbing." And of course, in the U.S.A., the dysfunction of both the health and gun debate is especially vivid if you've lived in countries where both of those problems are largely solved.
Is there a risk in writing “four tales of our present moment,” as the front cover of “Radicalized” puts it? Did you have any concern of events overtaking the fiction? Our mutual friend, author Charlie Stross, has talked about that being a problem when he was writing his own near-future work.
I have nothing but respect for Charlie, but this stuff doesn't bother me in the way it bothers him. I think of [sci fi] as a reflective literature, not a predictive one. Moreover, I think the themes of the novellas in this book are sadly evergreen, even if the particulars change.
For example, “Unauthorized Bread's” theme is that we will force those with the least social power in our world to use our worst technology as beta testers for bad ideas. If you want a glimpse of your dystopian technological future, just have a look at what we're forcing on schoolkids today and project forward 10 years.
Likewise "Model Minority." Superman won't be intervening in any racist NYPD beatings — but we have many years of grappling with privilege and ally-ship to come, in which privileged people who have been inactive on these issues are finally moved to jump into the fray, in which they decide that their participation is more important than the views of the people whose lives they're intervening in, and where the question "Why did it take you so long?" will deserve honest answers.
Or as in "Radicalized," we'll continue to grapple with the fact that America has a population of aggrieved, heavily armed white men who can move in elite spaces without arousing suspicion — and the fact that corporations like health insurance companies routinely murder-by-bureaucracy the people who matter most to these dudes.
Finally, "Masque of the Red Death" isn't a story I have to worry about being overtaken by — if we arrive at the end of civilization, the details will be moot. Which is, in a way, the point: The end of civilization isn't something we should be preparing bunkers for, it's something we should be striving to avert and getting ready to remediate when the signs get bad. The heroes of the disaster aren't the rich dudes wetting their beds in luxury bunkers — it's the people who get the sanitation going again.
You write fiction and you’re also a public advocate for tech, privacy and current cultural issues, and you’ve been adept your entire career in using the former to advance the latter. What is it about fiction that makes it an effective vessel for talking about the issues that drive you? How do you find the balance for entertainment and argument?
I think that fiction is a superb way to put flesh on the dry, abstract bones of technical and policy debate — a fly-through of an architect's rendering of the emotional lived-experience of the consequences of our policy choices.
Technological problems are pernicious — in a manner similar to climate change, the consequences of bad technological choices often manifest a long time after the choices themselves, and it's hard to get people to act on these issues with the right degree of urgency given the long fuse that's burning on them. Fiction can make the detonation more visceral and immediate, and possibly spur us to action when the problems are still manageable rather than when they're so pernicious that they can't be denied, but also might be too far along to do anything about.
“Radicalized,” Cory Doctorow, Tor Books, 304 pages, $26.99
Cory Doctorow at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: Doctorow appears at 3 p.m. Sunday in conversation with L.A. Times Critic at Large John Scalzi and Maryelizabeth Yturralde.